Life lessons from my local beggars
In my leafy midtown neighbourhood, not three minutes' walk from my door, there's a row of much beloved food shops that are collectively known as the Five Thieves. At least once a day, I stop in to satisfy my desire of the moment. I could pay a lot less at the supermarket, but I like my salmon wild, my bread organic and my bacon lovingly smoked from an old family recipe. While filling my tote bag, I meet so many friends and neighbours that the Thieves remind me of a club where the bonding ritual is shopping instead of tennis or golf. By exchanging smiles, we regulars affirm our place in the world.
On my rounds, I often pass one person who has no place-unless you count the plastic milk crate he uses for a seat. He positions himself beneath the green grocer's awning, where he waits for change from passers-by. He has keen eyes, a grizzled face and an air of ragged pride. In a previous life, a few wrong turns ago, perhaps he sat in an office with his nameplate on the door, a go-to guy on the finer points of tax law or Old English grammar. A few people bend to offer him a coin and, more rarely, a kind word. I have never been one of those people.
I like to think of myself as a compassionate sort, a donor to worthy causes and a loyal confidante to my friends. In fact my compassion only goes so far. I have looked away hundreds of times from my local beggar. I have trained myself not to see him--or the other beggars who have gradually staked out every prime corner in the city I've called home for close to 40 years.
My city, where I've put down roots so deep that I can't imagine moving, has become a hard and dangerous place where thousands have no home. I've hardened, too. Passing vagrants who gesticulate and mumble, I always veer away, as if I could catch whatever illness has shattered their minds. Such people used to live in psychiatric wards. Then I didn't have to wonder what they live on, or where they take shelter in the winter.
Some say I'm the one who should fear for my safety. I live in downtown Toronto, where a man was fatally stabbed last week during an altercation with aggressive panhandlers. In my morning paper, an editorial declares war on the "army of deadbeats thrusting their hands out for coins."
I don't buy it. Sure, violence calls for stiff measures. But what about your typical hard-luck case who hasn't had a meal today?
I am married to a man who drops the occasional coin into someone's outstretched palm. We've had words about this. My complaint: "Don't you realize you could be financing someone's drug habit?" His answer: "I felt like being magnanimous." In my husband's view, beggars are selling a product: an instant boost in self-esteem."
Nice try, but I'm not buying my compassion on the street. Isn't that what charitable donations are for? With my annual cheque to the United Way, I support agencies that help the homeless. But sometimes I get tired of ignoring human degradation. Sometimes I want to feel for a person I can see, instead of mailing a cheque to an office downtown. Sometimes my guilt seeks a living, breathing focus. Then I become-for one conflicted moment-a pushover. I once gave to a big-eyed Newfoundlander who claimed to be hungry and lonely for the outport (and who happened to be standing outside the liquor store).
Just when I think I have armoured myself against wheedling hucksters whose stories have even more holes than their jeans, someone forces me to look at the face of desperation. I couldn't ignore the 60-something woman who stood outside my local Starbucks, her bearing rigidly erect, as if she were steeling herself for the funeral of a loved one. Over her immaculate powder-blue T shirt she had hung a cardboard sign: "Senior in need." She was the woman my friends dread becoming as they contemplate their savings. When I gave her a toonie, I saw her read my mind. And I saw her flinch at the death of her dignity.
There must be a better way to deal with urban guilt. My friend Jody, a leader in the grassroots campaign against poverty, has trained her whole family to have leftover restaurant meals wrapped up, so they can feed a few people on the way home. Their strategy won't work for me; I clean my plate. But I'm inspired by my friend Dianne. Like me, she gives to charities, not to panhandlers. Unless they badger her, though, she never cold-shoulders them. "I make a point of making eye contact and saying directly to them, ‘Sorry.' Often a panhandler will make a joke and I'll laugh and they'll comment on my smile, or wish me well because of that connection."
A while ago my local beggar seemed to have vanished. Passing the empty crate, I wondered what had become of him. Had he hitched a ride to some other town? Landed in jail? Been run over in the subway?
I was buying tomatoes for a Greek salad when the beggar crashed into the store, shouting the first words I'd ever heard him speak: "Help the homeless! Help the homeless!" The chasm in his eyes had no bottom. The proprietor eased him to the door, as if the beggar were a child in need of a time-out. Their palms met in a furtive exchange. Now I know why the beggar disappears for days at a time. He's still missing as I write this. But soon enough, he'll be back on his crate, looking for a sign that he belongs to the human tribe.